When William Duncan’s youngest son suffered a brain injury in a 1998 training accident, he retreated to his bedroom and lived in the dark for the next two years.
Duncan said he walked by his son’s room one night, and his son asked to talk to him for a minute. Duncan’s son said that he couldn’t hold down a job, which meant he couldn’t find a girlfriend, get married or have children.
Duncan said his son had decided to kill himself, but he didn’t want his mother to find him. So Duncan’s son asked his father to take care of him.
The son’s cry for help prompted Duncan to seek a way to treat the injury, which led him to a doctor who had successfully used hyperbaric oxygen therapy to treat people who had suffered strokes or traumatic brain injuries. Based on the doctor’s track record, Duncan decided that the therapy might help his son.
Duncan said he sent his son to a New Orleans hospital for treatment, which lasted for a month. His son received 40 hyperbaric oxygen sessions, half of today’s standard treatment.
Duncan said the therapy turned his son’s life around.
“To my surprise, two months later he was gainfully employed,” Duncan said. “Nine months later, he was married. Nine months after that, he had the sixth grandchild.”
Duncan, who serves as vice president of development the Virginia-based International Hyperbaric Medical Foundation, visited East Central University on Thursday to tout the benefits of hyperbaric oxygen therapy for people with traumatic brain injuries. The foundation supports the nonprofit organization Patriot Clinics, which focuses on treating veterans and other people with brain injuries.
Patriot Clinics operates a clinic in Oklahoma City, and officials are looking at opening a similar facility in Ada. The clinics are funded by private donations, payment for service and third-party payments when possible.
Proponents hail hyperbaric oxygen therapy as a breakthrough in treating traumatic brain injuries that can produce life-changing results. But some researchers have questioned those claims, saying the treatment is ineffective at best and potentially dangerous at worst.
How it works
Patients receiving hyperbaric oxygen therapy are placed in a pressurized room where the atmospheric pressure is raised up to three times higher than usual, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The patient’s lungs can gather up to three times more oxygen than normal, and the blood carries the oxygen throughout the body.
The therapy increases the amount of oxygen dissolved in the patient’s blood, which may improve oxygen delivery for vital tissue functions to help fight infection or reduce injuries.
Earlier this year, the Oklahoma Legislature approved a bill that set up a fund to provide free hyperbaric oxygen therapy for veterans who have suffered traumatic brain injuries. Gov. Mary Fallin has signed into law Senate Bill 1604, which directs the Oklahoma State University Center for Aerospace and Hyperbaric Medicine to develop standards for using the therapy to treat traumatic brain injuries.
Under the new law, Oklahoma veterans who have been diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries and are prescribed hyperbaric oxygen therapy may seek treatment at any facility in the state with a hyperbaric chamber. A revolving fund in the state treasury will cover the cost of the therapy.
Duncan estimated that Oklahoma has 43,910 injured veterans who could benefit from hyperbaric therapy.
“We want them to go back to work,” he said. “We want them to find a girl, get married, have babies, send them to college. That’s how you build society.”
Some researchers have challenged claims that hyperbaric oxygen therapy can help people with brain injuries rebuild their lives.
The FDA has approved hyperbaric chambers for certain medical uses, such as treating decompression sickness in divers. However, the agency warned in August 2013 that the therapy has not been established as a safe, effective treatment for other conditions, including brain injuries.
Duncan dismissed the FDA’s warning on Thursday, saying it was based on the agency’s response to a manufacturer who had used hyperbaric therapy to treat autistic children. He added that the manufacturer had tried to undermine other companies by making fraudulent claims, which required an FDA investigation.
“They did this bulletin because he had the market on home chambers, and they were trying to get at that particular problem,” Duncan said.
One of the critics of hyperbaric oxygen therapy is David Cifu, national director for physical medicine and rehabilitation for the Department of Veterans Affairs. Over the past five years, Cifu has conducted three studies examining whether hyperbaric oxygen therapy can help victims of traumatic brain injuries.
The studies divided patients into three groups. One group received hyperbaric treatment, a second group was placed in a pressurized chamber without extra oxygen, and a third received normal air.
All three studies found that the patients receiving hyperbaric oxygen therapy showed some improvement in certain areas, but they did not perform better than the other groups.
“We just couldn’t find it working in any of those studies,” Cifu said Friday. “There was some improvement, but you could get it with just sham (air).”
Reach Eric Swanson at email@example.com.